My earliest memory of him is at my maternal home on Desai Road, Nairobi: my Uncle Bash, my Bashmama. He is just married. My two elder sisters and me, then 4 or 5 years old, are there for the marriage. My Bashmama, this exceedingly debonair cosmopolitan uncle, with his French Beard, with his dark complexion, with his stinging humor, and the resultant chuckle when the dig or jab makes the recipient of his humor squirm, this ladies man with his broken nose, which he maintained he broke while boxing, is now tethered to my beautiful Aunty Prim. I remember him gathering up all the cups, plates and glasses in my Lila Mama’s kitchen and lining it on the balcony of the Desai house and shooting the crockery off, one by one, with his air rifle. I imagine my grandmother screaming and shouting at him, maybe even using her favorite Punjabi expletive, “fitteh muh tera”, which growing up I used to think meant “may your face explode”, because that is the literal translation, but in Punjabi it is also a term of endearment, one which my Lila mama often used, and at times took up a notch by adding the word “Durr”. But that was him: no one told Uncle Bash what to do. I think the symbolism of breaking the crockery was that old ways must make way for new, and had not a new life started with Aunty Prim?
New life, new teams. Team Bash and Team Prim. Bashmama dotes on the girls, my two elder sisters: they get to join Team Bash. I get tough love. In Punjabi households, boys get all the attention and girls not so much. Uncle Bash is the trendsetter. He reverses the Punjabi trend of male adoration by parents. I lead the vanguard of this new trend among the male progeny of my family. Henceforth, be it known, that all male progeny of this family will only get tough love! You swim or sink bud. Learn from the University of hard knocks. It will make you strong and it will make you tough. I think that was his general philosophy for the gents. Later in life he told me, “Puttar (son), I want to teach you how to fish, not put it on your plate.” Self reliance, self sufficiency, going forth boldly in life, having a clean conscience (“Niyat” he used to say: intention, purpose, will) being an engine that pulls yourself and others in its wake: these were the thoughts we gathered from him.
Most of my time is spent on the stairway of the Desai road house, where I am given time out by my Bashmama. It often happens that during meals I am fussy about food. My dearest mom wants to pamper me. She says, “If you don’t like this dish, what else can I get for you my darling? “
“Nothing doing ,” says my Uncle Bash, “go stand outside on the stairway till you feel hungry.”
And I am stubborn. I can stand outside for a long time.
Their Honeymoon: He takes the whole family to the beach at Mombasa. My sisters get nice beach costumes. Nothing for me from Uncle Bash. Aunty Prim takes me under her wing. She gets me my swimming trunks. I am firmly in the Aunty Prim camp. From then on, whenever my sisters get a gift from Uncle Bash, I get one from Aunty Prim. Mostly toy guns. I have a huge collection of toy guns. Rifles, pistols of every kind. I keep them behind a dresser in my room at the Desai Road house.
The beloved uncle with the dark completion jives me about my dark complexion and I put talcum powder on my face and saunter out saying, “See I am dark no more.” When that does not work, I sing him the Junior Mehmood song that was popular in those days, “Hum kaale hain to kyaa hua dilwaale hain” : what if I am black, I am the jovial boy with the golden heart.
I come back to India, school, then college. Now a long distance relationship but he is there at all major milestones of my life. When I am twenty, and out of college, I want to rediscover the Kenyan side of my family, and return to Kenya to work with my Bash mama and Moni mama, the famous industrialists of Kenya. I am expecting that some of their business acumen will rub off me but I am woefully inept at this business thing. I start studying for my accountancy exams, the major attraction of accountancy being the Norfolk hotel, which is opposite the Nairobi University Library, where I go in the evenings to study, and after study, Norfolk is my beer stop . I run into Bashmama multiple times at the Norfolk hotel where he brings his business guests. No wonder he thought my studies were a lark!
If my maternal grandfather, my Nana, the founder of Elephant Soap Industries of Kenya, the patient , saintly, generous, soft spoken Sardari Lal Kohli, the Arya Samaji, was Ramakrishna, then my uncle Subash Chander Kohli was the tempestuous apostle Vivekananda. After my Nana died, Bashmama wore my Nana’s ring all his life. I remember the ring: a square gold ring which had a square black stone inset. It was as if he donned my Nana’s mantle. And he did. Multiple streams and tributaries ran into this ocean, my Bashmama. Each stream and each tributary was a family member he touched (touched might be too passive a word. Gave a constant electric current might be more accurate. Or shocked even). Brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, grand-nephews, grand-nieces, all had a unique profound relationship with him: Uncle Bash, Bashmama, Dada Bash. Family was all important to him. We used to watch the Dynasty TV series with him on VHS tapes and he would very excitedly say: that’s what I want our family to be: a dynasty. He was very fond of BBC series. I remember my cousin Sanjay in England used to tape BBC series for him. My sister Chutky and I would also pick up VHS tapes on our way home (I remember we used to split the cost). Some of the series that we used to watch at that time were: Faulty Towers, Yes Minister, Arthur, Dallas, Dynasty (I wish I remembered more). Mahabharat was also his favorite. He once told me that he identified with Bhishma Pitamah.
And now he is no more.
Love you lots and miss you lots dear beloved Bashmama. Family is for always, that I learnt from you . The secular in me knows that you are in me and propagated through my DNA, and the closet faithful in me believes that whenever Krishna takes his avatar, Balram and Krishna’s family also descends. The same family forever & ever!